#smhedia

My friend Kenny (who once made the observation “Centipedes are the spiders of the bathtub” in a perfectly contextual fashion) posed a question on Twitter this morning:

Is there a word for when something or someone stupid gets an outsized amount of news coverage and is getting spread way further than it should have? Could be used to describe Raw Water, Flat Earthers, James Damore, etc.

I pondered Kenny’s question for a while today. My answer? Yes, Kenny, there is such a word, and it is . . .

Let’s break it down . . .

The source of the “media” part of the portmanteau word should be obvious: them what propagate such idiocy widely, for fun and/or profit.

“SMH” is textspeak for “Shaking My Head,” and Urban Dictionary tells us it is “usually used when someone finds something so stupid, no words can do it justice.”

I then take it one level deeper than that. Because it is often written “smh” in posts, my brain actually reads that as a pronounceable word when I see it onscreen — “s’meh” — which I perceive as shorthand for “it’s meh.” And quoting Urban Dictionary again, “meh” means “indifference; used when one simply does not care.”

So . . . we’ve got the media issuing stories so stupid that no words can do them justice, to which most people are indifferent, and simply do not care.

That’s smhedia. Or better yet, let’s hashtag it: #smhedia. Does that work? Can we make it propagate, tagging #smhedia to such things and then moving on quickly when confronted with such idiocy? It probably won’t change anything . . . but it will be fun.

Let’s do this!

(P.S. Note: I post this little piece here about #smhedia today because I coined another word long ago, and didn’t realize how widely it had propagated until it started showing up on albums and in interviews years later. The ground zero for that word was lost in the ancient archives of early ’90s CompuServe, so this time, I figure I’ll put this origin story here, now, and if someone turns it into some #smhedia-worthy profit-engine down the line, I’ll show up for my handout with a date-stamped copy of this blog post).

 

Iowa Caucus Day 2016: Resource Guide

Marcia and I moved to Iowa a little over four years ago, at the peak of 2012’s caucus season. Within a month of our arrival, Marcia was interviewed and quoted in an internationally-syndicated Reuters article, after we attended a candidate rally on a whim. So we learned first hand that it’s easy to have your say in public when you live in a small state with a vast media enterprise descending upon you.

Marcia’s quote in the Reuters interview was thoughtful and balanced, but that’s not the norm, frankly, especially in hotly contested races like those unfolding now. A lot of the quotes coming out of Iowa lack balance as voters and campaign flacks attempt to sway others to their cause, and many other quotes coming out of Iowa lack thought because politics is primarily a gut sport in many areas of the State, like football, or deer hunting. Reaction and reflex matter more than deliberation and discourse, especially under the media’s unrelenting kleig lights — which many thoughtful voters are repelled by, even as they draw the most reactive voters into their beams.

By the time I left Iowa, I reached the conclusion that the caucuses are bad for America. That being said, were I still in the State, I would be participating tonight, because I consider voting to be a civic responsibility of all citizens, regardless of how I feel about the process. Marcia (who still works out of Iowa and has maintained residency there) and Katelin (who lives and works there full time) are planning to caucus tonight, so I hope they enjoy the evening and I look forward to hearing about it from them. The media army in Des Moines is largely based in the same building where Katelin works, so she’s getting to really see it all up close and personal. That’s an experience, if nothing else.

I wrote a lot about Iowa while I was there, with many of my pieces being tongue-in-cheek explorations into some of the State’s unique cultural habits and history. One of those articles — Iowa Geography: An Introduction — has recently gotten a bit of renewed online traction after Molly Ball of The Atlantic re-tweeted it a couple of time for her followers.

So in a spirit of helpfulness to those of you who may be either wondering a bit about, or wandering about a bit, of Iowa today, here are a few other articles that may help you get what’s going on, and why:

Iowa History 101

Why Iowa First?

Danny Allamakee’s Iowanfero (Cliff Notes Version)

Best Iowa Films

Universal Iowa Recipe

Des Moinsk, Iowaberia

Iowa Ranking Roundup

Popular Iowa Cocktails

Popular Iowa Wines

Great Iowa Novels

Great Iowa Music

The Iowa Decathlon

Farewell, Metroland?

For the first time in 38 years, Albany-based alternative newsweekly Metroland will not publish a new edition this week, following the seizure of its offices and property by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. Having just read Paul Grondahl’s interview with Metroland Editor and Publisher Stephen Leon, I’m not seeing any likely scenario where the once vibrant paper is going to be making a return anytime soon in anything approaching its historic editorial and aesthetic configuration.

That’s sad news for me, since I have a deep history with the paper, and I owe Steve and many members of his team a debt of gratitude for allowing me to become part of the Albany cultural community in ways that would have been largely closed to me without my Metroland bylines and connections. While the left-leaning, sometimes sanctimonious paper was certainly not universally loved in and around Albany, it had wide distribution and extensive name recognition, and it was the go-to resource for the region’s cultural calendars for years before the internet rendered it irrelevant.

My history with the paper actually pre-dates my time in Albany. Marcia and I both worked on media and press relations for the Naval Reactors program in Washington, DC in the late ’80s, and Metroland was a thorn in our side for its nagging, niggling coverage of a series of whistle-blower based incidents at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in Niskayuna. While I can’t discuss the details or merits of those claims and Metroland‘s coverage thereof, I can tell you that the paper was doing its job from a journalistic standpoint, raising questions and covering angles that the larger daily papers were often missing at the time.

It was my job with Naval Reactors that later brought us to the Capital Region after a stint in Idaho, and through a fortuitous series of personal network connections (thanks, Paul Rapp!) I found myself as one of the new music critics for the paper in 1995 — hot on the heels of a financial meltdown and recovery that ousted the original ownership group and replaced it with Stephen Leon’s team. My first two articles were reviews of records by The Roches and Foetus, and I oscillated between such extremes throughout my time with the paper, eventually branching out into travel writing, interviews, think pieces and other feature work.

I freelanced for Metroland for nearly a year while still working for Naval Reactors, keeping a low profile (beyond my bylines) on both fronts, given the awkward history between my full-time and part-time employer. I rarely went to the Metroland offices during my first year with the paper, which helpfully allowed me to remain largely unrecognized and unknown in the local music community when I started covering it, thereby providing a degree of safe objectivity as I lurked in the shadows at concerts. Even the other Metroland writers had no idea what I looked like or who I was for much of that period, and a former editor once told me she was shocked when she met me, as she expected me to be a leather-garbed, long-haired, heavily pierced rock n’ roll rabble-rouser, based on my writing style and interests.

When I resigned from Federal service in 1996, Steve put me on a steady weekly retainer, which was tremendously helpful as I made the transition from government to nonprofit service. I’m still grateful to him for that key opportunity at a key time. I ended up with over 750 bylines in Metroland between 1995 and 2003, plus probably another couple of hundred pieces that ran without credit, e.g. the “Noteworthy” columns of key upcoming concerts. The first incarnations of my personal website included a lot of these pieces, way back in the days before Metroland itself had much of a web presence. The exposure I gained from my work with the paper directly contributed to my involvement (eventually as on-air host) with Time Warner Cable’s Sounding Board music television show, along with many other freelance writing assignments over the years. It remains a great item on my professional resume.

I stopped reviewing live music for Metroland when I started booking shows at the Chapel + Cultural Center in 2002, as I considered it tacky and unprofessional to fill both roles within the same market. I later asked that my name be removed from Metroland‘s masthead during the early days of the Iraq War, as I was uncomfortable with some of the positions and tone that the paper took with regard to the soldiers, aviators and sailors (and their families) who served at the time, and did not want to imply my approval thereof in any fashion. It was a good run, and I mostly enjoyed it all, except at the very end.

All that being said: even back in 1995, it was something of a running gallows-humor joke among the freelancers that remuneration for our services was going to be neither quick nor efficient, and the lag-time between submission and payment for works often grew to six months or more during my time with the paper. When I was writing every week, this didn’t bother me all that much, since I eventually got to the point where I had a paycheck every couple of weeks — even if it was for work that had run months before. But for those who depended more heavily on these paychecks than I did, it was certainly a burden, and it apparently got worse after I left, when I heard tales of bounced checks and even longer lag times.

I suppose, then, that it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the tax man was treated no better than the creative types who made the paper possible. It’s a slippery slope once you decide to forsake timely payment of obligations, and once you get away with it, it’s a hard habit to break. Still, though, it’s a rotten ending for a business enterprise that made a difference in its own ways. I hope that Steve and the current staff and freelancers (plus their families) will be okay once the dust settles — though I suspect that will be a long, painful process along the way, and that once it’s done, Metroland will either cease to exist, or will become a captive faux alternative arts and culture advertising broadsheet for one of the region’s daily newspapers.

End of an era, either way.

1,000

WordPress tells me that this is the 1,000th post on J. Eric Smith Dot Com. Huttah!

I’m guessing that there aren’t a lot of solo blogs out there that hit this mark — though in reality, I’ve actually been far more prolific with my online writing than the post count here would indicate. This version of the blog compiles and consolidates a lot of earlier sites, and I deleted a lot of things along the way that I didn’t want to carry forward, or that I reserved offline after original publication for other purposes.

Here’s the tale of the tape: I have maintained an active online presence since 1993, launched a personal website in 1995, and blogged regularly since September 2000. The website you’re reading now is the fourth incarnation of my blog. The first served as a repository for over 750 reviews and feature articles I wrote in the ’90s for print clients, before most of them even had their own websites. The second version focused on creative writing projects, including a poem a day published in 2004; several articles went viral during this period, helping me to develop a very strong online brand. The third version provided an archive of professional posts written for commercial and academic purposes.

This current, fourth version of my online home consolidates all of these earlier pieces — professional and personal, entertainment and education, left brain and right brain, humorous and serious — dating back to 1995, and serves as my home for new writing of all flavors. It also incorporates pieces that I wrote for other blogs and websites, often under pseudonyms. I’m not telling you which ones they are and where they originally appeared, though. If you recognize them, a gold star for you. But then: Shhhh!

I’ve made some money on some of these items, and used others of them for professional and academic pursuits that had high return on time investment beyond initial compensation, but this website ultimately reflects the fact that writing is my primary hobby. It’s the thing I do to enjoyably fill spare time, some of which might truthfully be better spent doing other things, but such is the nature of creative compulsion. I enjoy scribbling, and I appreciate having a public forum to do it.

That being said, by being such a diligent, sometimes feverish hobbyist over the years, I have definitely made myself a far better and faster writer at work, and my ability to communicate via the written word is now the cornerstone of my marketability to employers and clients alike. So all things considered, I’m at peace with having freely shared a lot of my work online, minus one unfortunate foray into unpaid writing for a venal and unethical commercial website that ended poorly. We live and we learn.

If you’re new to my site and writing and want to know more, here are the ten posts that WordPress tells me are the most frequently viewed by my site’s visitors, excluding the front page and general information sections:

On Success, And Who Defines It

The Worst Rock Band Ever

Understanding Organizational Development

March of the Mellotrons: The Greatest Classic Prog Rock Album Ever

Top 20 Albums of 2014

Let’s Take It To The Stage: The Greatest Live Album Ever

How To Write A Record Review

Five Common Misconceptions About Nonprofits

I Like The Bee Gees

You Ain’t Got A Dog In That Fight

That’s an interesting (to me) combination of pieces covering a pretty broad spectrum of my writing subjects and styles, and I get why some of them are popular, though not so much with others. So as a supplement to the voice of the people with regard to my writing, here are ten additional pages that I personally would consider as contenders for the best 1.0% of the work archived here — recognizing that creative people are often the worst judges of their own work, and that if asked to recreate this list a year from now, it might look very different:

The Road to Anywhere

The Analog Kid Speaks

Compassionate Grounds

Rock And Roll Is Not Collective

Moments: Portugal and Spain in Six Tiny Vignettes

James Joyce Vs Breakfast

The Grease Group

Rulebound Rebellion: An Ethnography Of American Hardcore Music

Jefferson Water

Sweetman

So there’s 20 pieces for you to read or re-read, if you’d like to help me celebrate my 1,000 post milestone here by engaging with the back catalog. There’s also a pull-down menu at the right that allows you to trawl back through the archives to 1995, and the search bar is always an effective way to find what you’re looking for — or to surprise yourself by finding what you weren’t. And if you’ve got a favorite that I’ve not mentioned, let me know. I might have forgotten that it existed, and might enjoy re-reading it again!

Regardless of where you surf on from here today, thanks for reading and playing along all these years. It has been — and remains — fun to have a big online sandbox to play in, and I appreciate you all bringing your buckets and shovels over every now and then.

DSM to ORD

Assuming all goes well with final house sale closing tomorrow morning, tonight will be our last night as full-time residents of Des Moines, Iowa. We will be in temporary housing in Chicago until September 15, when we will move into our fabulous new apartment in 340 on the Park in Chicago. Marcia started her new job a couple of weeks ago, and I will be starting mine in late August after a trip to Savannah, Georgia to visit my mother and scout some wintertime properties. (I’m waiting to announce my new gig here until its been officially and formally announced in public by my new employer — but that should be soon, if you’re curious).

I’ve spent about as long in Des Moines as I spent at the Naval Academy, and about twice as long as I spent in Idaho, and I view those three life experiences in the same light: none of them were final destinations, and they weren’t necessarily where I wanted to be at the time, but they were important steps forward toward bigger and better things. Annapolis led to an amazing career at Naval Reactors and to meeting Marcia. Idaho led to Albany, where we happily lived for nearly two decades and raised our only child, and I learned how to be a strong nonprofit executive. Des Moines gave Katelin a great start to her own nascent career and is now leading Marcia and I to Chicago, and we are both very excited about the personal and professional opportunities and experiences ahead of us there.

As I relax and reflect on my last full day as an Iowa resident, I would like to share the following lists of some things I will miss when I leave, and some things I will not miss when I leave. Maybe these will be illustrative and helpful for future transplants to Des Moines. I certainly would have liked to have known about some of them four years ago.

Some Things I Won’t Miss When I Leave Iowa:

  1. The Iowa Caucuses: I’ve recently written at length about this here. At bottom line: I think Iowa’s “First in Nation” status is bad for America, and I do not like watching political candidates behaving badly in my backyard for media attention. Related: State Governor should not be a “for life” position. Enough on both fronts.
  2. Restaurants Being Closed on Sunday: While there are a (very) few eateries that buck this trend, dining out options on Sunday in Des Moines are generally limited to brunches patronized by hungover twenty-somethings. Related: The state of dining in Des Moines is pretty haphazard, even on days other than Sunday. Caveat Emptor.
  3. Big Agriculture: The romantic myth of the family farm is a core part of the cultural narrative in Iowa, but the reality is that most of the State’s big farms are just as much corporate conglomerates as anything else traded on Wall Street. I like to eat, but I don’t like having my electoral interests dominated by agricultural concerns, and I don’t like living in a State that slops hard at the trough of Federal farm subsidies, while begrudging its own more vulnerable citizens the safety net and healthcare support to which they’re entitled. Also, having driven through all 99 of Iowa’s counties, I’ll be okay never seeing a corn field again. Or smelling another industrial hog confinement.
  4. Fascination With Shiny New Things: There are some amazing cultural and historic treasures in Iowa, and it has been dismaying to watch them struggle for resources while half-baked, non-charitable enterprises masquerading as nonprofits hoover up funding because they’re new, shiny, and targetted toward the young professional demographic that local media love and/or managed by the otherwise inexperienced scions of a few privileged Iowa families. Even in the short four years that I’ve been here, I’ve watched several of these shiny new things develop rust and fall apart, wasting funds that could have been better deployed elsewhere. A little more discretion, discipline and taking the long view from funders and the media alike would make a big difference here.
  5. Living in the Wrong American Nation: Marcia grew up in Minnesota, and we quite like it there, so it seemed that Iowa — its immediate neighbor to the South — would be culturally similar enough that it would be an easy transition to live here. But it wasn’t, in more ways than I can cite in a short list like this. A couple of years ago, our sense that Iowa was somehow fundamentally different from Minnesota and Upstate New York (our home for the prior twenty years) was made more clear for us when we read an article on the Eleven Cultural Nations in America today. Iowa is culturally part of The Midlands, and Minnesota and New York are part of Yankeedom. And there’s a much bigger difference there than you might think, trust me. Fortunately, Chicago is also part of Yankeedom. Welcome home.

Some Things I Will Miss When I Leave Iowa:

  1. Katelin: Our daughter has found a great job, a great apartment, and a great boyfriend in Des Moines, and she really has proven the rubric that Iowa’s Capital City is a great place for young professionals to begin their careers. So she’ll be staying here for now as we move on. Fortunately, it’s a short flight or easy drive between our two cities, but we won’t be able to take our lunchtime walks together as frequently as we have for the past couple of years. She is keeping Rosie and The Bumble for us, and I think she considers this a fair trade.
  2. The Salisbury House Library: I have enjoyed my job at Salisbury House, though I have been frustrated by the lack of robust, long-term community support it receives, in large part because of the “Shiny New Things” phenomena noted above. I’m proud that I balanced the long-broken operating budget and helped preserve the House’s future, but it deserves more than just hanging on by the skin of the staff’s collective teeth. While I appreciate all of the House’s elements (architecture, gardens and forests, furnishings, fine art, etc.), I feel most fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with the Weeks Family’s library and rare documents collections for the past three and half years. I’m not sure that I will ever again have the chance to be so close to so many important cultural treasures, most especially the James Joyce collections that I love so much. What a gift to have held his papers in my own two hands.
  3. Des Moines Farmers Market: I’m sure we will find a farmers market that we like in Chicago, but the May to October market in downtown Des Moines is really something special, one of the places where the real remnants of the small family farms still hold court and offer their wares. Even when we didn’t really need anything, it was always nice to put on our Naval Academy, UAlbany or Minnesota team colors (to combat the overwhelming number of Cyclone and Hawkeye shirts on display) and go walk slowly around the market, having something fresh for breakfast, people watching, and picking up a couple of jars of Juan O’Sullivan’s exceptionally delicious salsa, which I often incorporated into a variety of tasty home-cooked dishes, along with tasty seasonings from Allspice.
  4. 4300 Ashby Avenue: We had a great house on a great street in a great neighborhood in Des Moines. Easy access to both of our offices, a couple of restaurants we liked within walking distance (one of them even open on Sundays!), and a very nice sense of community among a group of neighbors who take great pride in living on “America’s Prettiest Christmas Block.” While my own Christmas decorations would be rated “adequate to credible” at best, it was nice to be part of something that the community valued and celebrated. Plus, our house was built like a freakin’ brick bomb shelter, so it felt solid, rooted, and substantial. I hope the new owners enjoy it as much as we did.

Mopping Up: 2014 in Review

So here we are, December 31, 2014, the last day of the final year of my first half-century. How did it go?

I documented my life in 2014 publicly via 55 blog posts here and at Indie Moines — which I shut down in September, considering it to be a successfully-executed endeavor with nothing more to justify it as a standalone writing outlet for me. I quit Facebook in 2014, and became more active on Twitter. I celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary in 2014, reaching a milestone where the days I have spent with Marcia in my life are now more numerous than the days I spent without her. I achieved the aggressive budget that I set for my work place, adding revenue, shrinking expenses, and expanding programs, all at the same time. I traveled to Europe, Florida, San Diego, Las Vegas, New York, Massachusetts, Death Valley, Missouri, Minnesota, Chicago, and Wisconsin, among other places, both within and beyond Iowa’s borders. I spent more time with Katelin in 2014 than in any recent year, too, which was delightful.

Big picture-wise, then, it was a pretty good year on a personal front. Great Jorb There, Universe! Much appreciated! But, of course, if you’re a regular reader of my various websites, then odds are that you’re not here for such macro, big picture stuff, but rather for the micro, list-making, obsessive, nerdy, spread-sheet fueled piffle and tripe in which I specialize. So let’s hurry up and get on with discussing that kind of stuff, shall we? Yes! Huttah!

There’s already been a good amount of list-nerding and spreadsheet-geekery going on here throughout 2014, as follows:

Goodness, that’s a lot of nerd stuff — and I didn’t even mention my large multi-attribute utility model designed to identify the best retirement city in America, or my two college basketball ranking models, or the analysis I used to win my second Fantasy Football title this year. Ahem.

Here, finally, are just a few more lists of the sorts of things I like to count, sort, and order as we prepare to greet 2015 on the morrow, hopefully without hangovers. Enjoy!

Favorite Books of 2014:

  • Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance (The Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer
  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
  • Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America by John Waters
  • Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West by Ethan Rarick
  • The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry by Lance Dodes
  • Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies by Lawrence Goldstone
  • The Big Midweek: Life Inside the Fall by Steve Hanley
  • Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany by David Stubbs
  • I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined) by Chuck Klosterman

Favorite Movies of 2014:

  • Frank
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Snowpiercer
  • Under the Skin
  • Birdman
  • Jodorowsky’s Dune
  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • Interstellar
  • Bad Words

Favorite Blogs:

  • Fifty-Two Weeks of the Fall (I’m obsessive about Mark E. Smith and The Fall, I’m a big fan of pointlessly-masochistic writing projects, and I appreciate honest music criticism without commercial taint. This website delivered on all accounts from the first to the last day of 2014. Bravo!)
  • Figuring. Shit. Out. (Amy Biancolli may well be one of the best writers I’ve ever read in any format: she’s funny, wise, prolific, thoughtful and candid about experiences that most of us cannot imagine, plus she has excellent taste in music and movies, and knows when to cuss and when not to. What’s not to love?)
  • Reyna Eisenstark (The writer used to blog at a certain newspaper that I don’t mention by name anymore, but I liked her prose and content enough to hold my nose at her surroundings, and just focus on her words, while she was there. In 2014, thankfully, she finally moved to her own page. Hooray!)
  • Cumbrian Sky (I first got hooked on Mars Stu when he began documenting Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity’s adventures on The Road to Endeavour in 2008. His writing style, sense of wonder, eclectic interests, and passion for astronomy — amateur and professional alike — are all brilliant and inspiring).
  • XKCD (Again. Still. Of course. Duh. Randall Munroe’s live coverage of Philae’s landing on Comet Cherry-Gerry was a high-water mark in the ways that science and entertainment can collide online, and that was just one of dozens of sublime moments this year).